England in the Penalty Shoot-Outs: It’s the Keepers, Stupid…

England in the Penalty Shoot-outs

Although England’s players and fans enjoy advancing to the second round in the World Cup, they are also entering the territory of their arch enemy: the penalty shoot-outs (PSO). To show the danger sneaking around better, we calculate that almost 20 percent of the elimination games in previous World Cups were decided by a PSO. This figure goes as high as 33 percent in the quarter-finals. 

England was the clear favorite of Group B and they had little difficulty in winning it. However, LWOS Editor Joe Blackburn predicted a less bright performance and a disappointment from the Three Lions in Qatar, “after a few international tournaments of dreams almost coming true.” If England fails at some stage, few would be surprised that it was after another shoot-out. 

England in the Penalty Shoot-outs: Not Another One Please!

It is safe to say that no nation hates the penalty shoot-outs more than England. Their dismal performance is so famous that some academics even name their papers about psychological pressure on athletes after the infamous record of England in the penalty shoot-outs. 

The misery of England in the penalty shoot-outs was so big that they were overjoyed to break this “hoodoo” than eliminating Colombia in the second round of the 2018 World Cup. The explanation from the jubilant British media was simple: Manager Gareth Southgate hired a psychologist to relieve the players’ stress during penalty kicks. This decision makes sense, given the fact that Southgate missed the sixth penalty against Germany in Euro 1996, and was hated for more than two decades as a result. Now, the scapegoat of the past was being praised for his brilliance. Alas, everything went back to normal in Euro 2020 Final, and England lost the penalty shoot-out against Italy. 

Single-leg elimination matches give a higher chance to the underdogs to triumph over a favorite team. Penalty shoot-outs increase these teams’ odds even higher. Researchers (like this one) usually attribute this to players choking due to the increased pressure, which is supposedly higher on the favorite side. To overcome this problem, Southgate looked to improve his teams’ performance by taking psychological advice for the penalty takers. It seemed to work at least once.

However, the problem can be somewhere else…

Step Back, I am a Statistician

To understand the reason behind England’s misery at the spot, we examine 52 penalty shoot-outs and 511 kicks, from previous World Cups ad European championships. Within this population, England took 45 penalties and received 46, on nine occasions with only two victories.

Naturally, the first thing to do would be to compare English players’ performance from the spot to other nationalities. As most people would expect, with a 64 percent scoring ratio, English penalty takers are 9.5 points worse than the rest of the world. However, this difference is not statistically significant, i.e. not too far from zero. Taking a second thought, it makes only one more miss for every ten kicks.

Next, we narrow our analysis down to only PSO that England was one of the sides. The difference between the success rates of English players and their opponents is even bigger (11.6 points), although still not statistically significant. However, things get interesting when we consider the kicks that found the frame (goal or not). In this area, English penalty takers are slightly better than their opponents.

If the English find the frame more successfully, there could be only one explanation from this side of the spot: opponent goalkeepers save them. Goalies saved 27 percent of England’s kicks, compared to 17 percent during the penalty shoot-outs, which didn’t include England. 

A possible interpretation for this sudden spike can be English penalty takers’ anxiety about missing the frame and receiving the same hatred Southgate once had. Therefore, they might be taking safer shots to avoid far areas of the goal and being hunted by opponent goalkeepers.

However, this doesn’t conclude the subject…

No One Could Save It, But Pickford

When we look at the English goalkeepers’ record at PSO, we see the real disaster. Of the 46 penalties, they managed to save only five of them. Although this figure means only 10.9 percent, it is still enough to save English goalkeepers from being significantly worse than their colleagues generally around the world (17 percent). 

But wait…

If you remember the Euro 2020 Final, you could also remember Jordan Pickford stopping two penalties against Italy. With this performance in just five penalties, Pickford had as many saves as Peter Shilton, David Seaman, Paul Robinson, and David James had combined in seven PSOs. In fact, Seaman was the only goalkeeper on this list who saved a penalty for his country. Moreover, Pickford stopped another penalty against Colombia in the 2018 World Cup. In other words, he single-handedly saves the pride of His Majesties’ goalkeepers in this area. 

When we exclude Pickford’s numbers from the data, we are left with only two saves in 36 kicks, which means a poor 5.2 percent. One doesn’t have to be a statistician to conclude that this is a horrible figure that is also significantly worse than the goalkeepers of other national teams.

Focus Not Only On Players, But Also Goalkeepers

To sum things up, England’s penalty-takers indeed have a lower scoring rate than their opponents. However, from a statistical viewpoint, this worse performance would not be different from zero if the English had taken that many (466) penalties. Meanwhile, they find the frame as often as other teams, suggesting increased stress, and hence, more saved shots. Therefore, Manager Southgate’s psychology team should keep working.

On the other hand, English goalkeepers did a much worse (and statistically significant) job than their opponents, until Pickford’s performance against Italy. 

Can the English have some relief about having their best keeper ever in the penalty shoot-outs?….

Extended Time: What About Senegal?

As England’s opponent in the second round, Senegal has both good and bad news in terms of PSO. The African nation saw only three PSOs in its history and lost two of them (both against Cameroon), so they are not as experienced. Also, their penalty takers have a 72 percent scoring rate, which means one more goal in 14 penalties. The bad news is, they have won their last PSO against Egypt in the 2021 African Nations Cup Final. 

On the other hand, Tony Sylvia saved two penalties out of five in the 2002 African Nations Cup Final.  Seaman managed to do this in 15 kicks. Moreover, it took 14 kicks for Senegalese keepers to make three saves. This is one more than all England keepers combined, whose names were not Pickford, in a total 32 penalties.

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